Director Jonathan Levine once again teams up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogan for The Night Before, a film which thematically falls in line with a number of other films from 2015, such as Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck and Jason Moore’s Sisters. Like Trainwreck and Sisters, The Night Before, at its essence, is about the use of recreational drugs in order to escape reality except unlike those films, the reality here is one that’s male-centric and thus the film reflects this; Ethan Miller (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is coping with the break-up of his girlfriend Diana (Lizzy Caplan), Isaac Greenberg is preparing for life as a father as his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) is due soon, and Chris Roberts (Anthony Mackie), a professional football player who has risen through the ranks quickly, must deal with his own inner turmoil as a professional sportsman abusing steroids. The Night Before, however, is also a Christmas movie akin to Scrooge (there are even narrative parallels) and so as a modern comedy film whose genre is rife with irony, sarcasm, and dark humor, The Night Before dares to be sincere, genuine, and ultimately cheesy to a heartwarming extent.
The film begins with a fairy-tale like narrative; shots of a story book opening are accompanied by the film’s narrator (Tracy Morgan) introducing the story to his readers within the film as well as to the audience at hand; in December 2001, Ethan has lost both his parents in a fatal driving accident. Alone on Christmas, his two friends Isaac and Chris come over to cheer him up in the best way they can; that is, with drugs and booze. The Christmas celebration of debaucheries becomes tradition and seven years later, things change for the trio when in 2008, they discover the “Nutcracker Ball,” a party otherwise known as the “craziest Christmas party.” The ball is hidden, however, and invitations are scarce, so the trio never actually attend the party but merely search for it every year to no avail.
Isaac and Chris’ lives soon change due to their responsibilities as a husband and professional football player respectively, and the two can no longer party as much as they used to and so Ethan is left alone. In the present day of 2015, the trio reunite for one last party that’ll serve as a goodbye to their youth but not before Ethan is able to snag tickets for the Nutcracker Ball.
If a director is an auteur and that director’s name connotes a certain sense of cinematic style, e.g., Quintin Tarantino is synonymous with over the top violence and dialogue filled with quips, then Seth Rogan as an actor has his own brand of auteur in that Rogan has established himself as a comedic actor who stars in films dealing with drugs, and that he’s usually accompanied by James Franco. It is because of his establishment of style then, that Seth Rogan dominates
The Night Before’s most comedic moments, moments that of course deal with drugs. The comedy that Rogan performs in The Night Before has evolved past the pot humor of his early work and is more physical here, becoming something of a twisted Chaplin or Keaton. The screenwriters (Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Jonathan Levine, and Ariel Shaffir) also seem to acknowledge Rogan’s drug-role as a comedic actor and so they go the extra step to include a punchline of meta-humor involving Rogan’s relationship to Franco. The joke begins rather subtly and works its way across the film involving several other jokes with their own punchlines along the way.
The more serious moments of the film are devoted towards Ethan and his belief of Christmas time as a moment of cathartic release. Later on in the film, Ethan berates a drunk duo dressed as Santa Clause for ruining the image of Clause and what it means to children, and he’s subsequently beaten up by the two. It’s easy to scoff at what could be perceived as Ethan’s naïve view of Christmas when Christmas is viewed through cynical eyes; there is no Santa Clause and Christmas has been twisted into a commercial holiday in order for businesses to make money.
While of course Christmas and Santa Clause are literally sold in the forms of trees and Clause paraphernalia, the idea of Christmas and Christmas values are also sold. Coca-Cola commercials for example, highlight the belief of unity during Christmastime albeit a unity that is brought about by their product. To buy and share Coca-Cola is to partake in the true meaning of Christmas and so it’s advertisements like this, especially in our own modern age of the internet that conduces rampant advertisement, that shape the cynical view of Christmas. In light of this, the character of Ethan becomes an oddly bold figure because of what is otherwise viewed as his naïve Christmas beliefs and it is through Ethan’s idea of Christmas that The Night Before’s themes are seen through.
As mentioned before, The Night Before shares a narrative parallels with Scrooge although here, the parallels are changed to fit the film’s own drug aesthetic. Because of Ethan and the connection to Scrooge which also pushes towards an idea of Christmas that is scoffed at now, by the end of the film it may seem that The Night Before runs the risk of being too hammy with its own messages yet the writers cleverly avoid this.
The Night Before isn’t interested in hiding its themes underneath a surface but instead, like its characters, bare the themes before the audience and one final scene towards the end of the film pushes The Night Before into a strange hyper-awareness of its own cheesiness. It should be mentioned that The Night Before’s moment of self-reflexivity at its own ending is different from something that could be called irony or satire, where the material on hand is self-reflexive to make fun of itself. The Night Before isn’t bringing its cheesy themes to light before pushing them away in order to be “cool” but rather just knows when to be funny and over the top, aspects that the film allows itself because of the drugs.
At its surface The Night Before may not seem as serious as its predecessor 50/50 and given that film’s subject matter is a battle with cancer, The Night Before indeed isn’t, yet the film isn’t just another stoner comedy. Instead, The Night Before is filled with its own fair share of laughs that cleverly mask the film’s child-like sincerity.